Best Home Grown Plums, Apricots, and Nectarines in Southern California

Question from Jon:
We had a gorgeous old plum tree in our back yard.  It had produced really great juicy plums for 1 season, but unfortunately the tree was very old and was not well cared for by the previous owner, so we had to remove it a few months ago.  It was infested with termites and ants!!.  So we want to plant another plum tree, but there are so many different varieties we are not sure which one to plant.  Do you have any recommendations?  The ones we had were yellow inside when they were ripe, and then would turn purple inside as they got more ripe.  Dark purple outside.
Also wanted to mention that the young man doing my yard is very passionate about what he’s doing.  He’s only 24 but has been landscaping since he was 14 and I am just really amazed at his talent.  I told him about you, and also gave him a copy of your book which he has greatly appreciated.   He already has read your November & December months as he’s working in my yard and reminds me of some of the things you have pointed out.  We are both getting a lot out of your book.  Anyway, he lives up in Encinitas and wondered if you ever gave tours of your garden ever.  I think I remember you saying that you had to stop that because of some liability issues, but I wasn’t sure.    I told him how much you have guided me and encouraged him to email you also.  I hope that is OK.   His name is Kasey Doyle in case you hear from him.
Let me know on the plums when you have a chance and thank you so much for all your help.
Answer from Pat:
The best tasting plum variety to grow in a Southern California home garden is ‘Santa Rosa’. That’s the one I would plant if I could have a plum tree where I live. The reason I like this plum so much is that the flavor is very sweet when fully ripe and soft, but with a twang to it that makes it just the best taste I’ve ever enjoyed in a plum. When you grow your own plums you can wait until they are ripe before picking them and this makes the flavor incredibly good—far better than any store-bought or market-bought plum you can find.

‘Santa Rosa’ plum also has the advantage of being self fruitful, so you will not need to plant a pollinator. It is an early-bearing tree. (There is another plum variety called ‘Autumn Santa Rosa’ and still another one called ‘Late Santa Rosa’, but don’t get these, since neither of them is quite as good as the original ‘Santa Rosa’ variety, which bears fruit in late spring or early summer. Judging by the way you described the fruit of the tree you had—the one that died—it sounds to me to have been ‘Santa Rosa’. You are correct in thinking these trees can die from neglect. Plum trees need lighter pruning than any other deciduous fruit tree, but one does need to train and shape the young tree and also every year after leaves fall, remove any dead and diseased wood. Be sure to clean it up every winter including the ground under the tree and also spray it with dormant spray. Keep other plants like ice plant from growing close to the trunk. This too can harm the health of a fruit tree. The ground under the canopy of the branches should be kept clean and bare except for a layer of mulch on top of the ground. Fertilize lightly with organic fertilizer when buds swell and are ready to open.
There are two other deciduous fruit trees that are high on my list of wonderful trees to grow in a home garden. Both of them bear well in your climate zone. One is the ‘Panamint’ nectarine and the other is ‘Blenheim’ apricot. Both of these bear sensationally tasty homegrown fruit to pick when ripe. ‘Blenheim’ will bear well in your climate zone but you will always have a heavier harvest of apricots every other year. You cannot purchase fruit with flavor that comes up to the flavor of fruit you will enjoy from your own tree. ‘Panamint’ nectarine should provide you with a big harvest every year. This is a much better tree to plant in a home garden here than a peach tree. For some reason people want to grow peaches here but they are not as well-adapted to Southern California gardens as are nectarines. The best home-grown peaches I ever tasted were in Ohio. We don’t have that kind of soil, rainfall, or hot summer days and nights to produce fruit laden with such flavor and sweetness.
I am so glad you purchased my book. Read the remarks on pruning these trees and on dormant spray. Both apricots and nectarines need careful winter pruning in order to provide fruiting wood but the system for pruning each of them is entirely different. Nectarines are like peaches in that they need heavier pruning than most other deciduous fruit trees. During the early years your attention should be directed to creating a good shape to the tree. Pruning in later years is for the purpose of encouraging the trees to develop the right amount of fruiting wood and in places where you can reach it.

Thank you so much for telling me about your gardener. I’m sorry about not being able to open my garden for tours. I am currently redesigning part of it to make it easier care and more useful for the future of my home. (My children and grandchildren intend to keep this house in our family indefinitely so anything I do to keep it up is an investment in the future.) In future, also I hope to be able to use various portions of it for videos. In this way I can share it with others either on my website, on U-Tube or on TV.

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  1. This question is often asked and the answer has been very helpful. I live in Orange County and I hope the same trees will work for me.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, the fruit tree varieties I mentioned in my reply to a query regarding plum trees should be excellent in Orange County also. However, Blenheim apricot may not bear fruit if grown in Zone 24. In that case I would recommend ‘Katie’ which is a low-chill variety. Among apple trees I would recommend ‘Anna’ and for a pollinator ‘Ein Shermir’. ‘Winter Banana’ is also a good low-chill apple tree and the apples make a wonderful apple pie. I have made the best apple pies ever by using fruit from this tree.

      Thank you for looking at my blog to find the answer to your question.

  2. Thank you for every other informative site. Where else may I get that kind of info written in such a perfect approach? I’ve a challenge that I am simply now working on, and I have been at the look out for such info.

    • Thanks for the feedback. It’s nice to know that my attempt to answer every question with precise and correct solutions is appreciated. Good luck on solving your challenging situation. Glad to know my info. helped.

  3. We live in north county San Diego… Does the Santa Rosa plum need full sun? Does it also come in dwarf.

    • Yes ‘Santa Rosa’ plum needs full sun. Yes, there is a dwarf variety called ‘Weeping Santa Rosa’. It grows only to about 6 or 8 feet high and as the name suggests, it droops.

  4. Stephanie Harvey

    Hello! What a great informative website you have! Thank you for all the wonderful information. We live in 50+ year old house on the coast in South Orange County. We have an amazing plum tree about that same age and also a large carob tree we have built a tree house in. For the past four years our plum tree has produced AMAZING dark purple plums, last year there were more than we could even keep up with as far as picking. Wow, it was amazing last July! Now, this year, NONE! What could have happened? Both the plum and the carob trees are, again, 50+ years old and both are infested with termites. Are the termites the reason for the lack of plums this year? Likely we had termites last year as well but had a million plums. Is there anyway to treat for termites without damaging the trees? We purchased our house four years ago and the house was tented then. Thank you in advance!

    • Thank you for your complement. Very glad to hear you have been helped by the information on this Q/A blog. ‘Santa Rosa’ is one of the best home-garden plums and people who have a ‘Santa Rosa’ tree usually rave about the quality of the fruit. ‘Santa Rosa’ is a Japanese variety with deep purple skin and red flesh when dead ripe. When plum trees bear one year and do not bear another year the reason is sometimes incorrect pruning and other times lack of sufficient winter chill. By incorrect pruning I mean cutting off the parts of the tree that have been previously fruitful. ‘Santa Rosa’ plums often will bear on the same branch or several branches for many years. If you cut off that branch or branches you will get no fruit. Regarding winter chill: though ‘Santa Rosa’ plums are mostly low-chill varieties they do need about 500 chill hours in winter in order to bear a crop. If your garden underwent a very mild winter this might be the reason the tree did not bear flowers or fruit. Several gardeners have reported to me a problem this year with trees not bearing. It could be temperature and it could be drought. If on the other hand the tree flowered but then there were no fruits, the problem could be a lack of bees. If that is the case, hand pollinate next year. Are you sure the insects in your tree are termites? They are more likely to be borers, such as peach-tree borers, which also afflict plums. However, if there are termites in the tree they will only be in the dead wood. Occasionally one can find an arborist who will cut out the dead heart of a tree that has rotten out, treat the cavity against the termites and then refill the hole with concrete. However, this treatment is expensive and the pesticides used are poisonous. I think you would be wise to continue enjoying your tree for as many years as it lives and meanwhile give it good care. Prune the tree in winter following the instructions for pruning plums and follow up with dormant spray which should be applied all over the tree with care three times about one month apart while the leaves are off the tree. Dormant sprays are the best protection against diseases and pests, including borers. Regarding your carob tree. It too most likely has borers and not termites, but carob trees are rugged and can live for many years despite pest problems. A very handsome carob tree on the campus of the college from which I graduated over 60 years ago is still alive today, though it is not quite as beautiful as it ounce was, not because of the fault of the tree but because of lack of artistry of whomever is now pruning it.

  5. What is the best time of year to prune a plum tree in Southern California? Should I prune the same way I do my peach tree? Thank you!

    • Prune your plum tree in winter after the leaves have fallen off. No (and this is an emphatic “no”) do not prune your plum tree in the same way as you would prune your peach tree. Peaches need more and heavier pruning than any other deciduous tree in order to create more growth that will bloom and bear the following year. In order to prune your plum tree you need to know which kind you have. European plums and hardy hybrids do no need much pruning. Just prune to remove dead, diseased, crossing or upright wood (such as water-sprouts that grew like buggy whips from the tops of branches in summer.) Japanese plums grow more vigorously and they require much heavier pruning in order to stimulate adequate growth throughout the tree and to ensure plentiful fruiting. For more precise directions, please refer to a pruning manual. Old paperback pruning books, such as the Sunset Pruning Handbook, printed in the 1970’s and as good as ever today, are easy to find online. Every gardener should own a pruning handbook but particularly folks who raise fruit trees.

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